How Much Difference Do Earpads Make?

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A couple of weeks back I received an email from an old acquaintance who was selling some gear, including a pair of Stax SR-X mark 3 headphones. I sent him back an email expressing interest in the Stax's, but he replied that they had been sold already, to my publisher, Jerry Del Colliano. Damn...

I called Jerry up and said, "Jerry! WTF! You bought the Stax headphones I wanted. Do you even own an energizer for them?" Jerry replied, "Hell no, I don't have an energizer. I bought them for you. Now you can do an article comparing a pair of Stax SR-X Mark 3 with new earpads (which I had recently fitted on my pair) with one that has the originals." And, so, due to my publisher's largesse, I shall do exactly that.

When Jerry's pair of Stax arrived I compared them to my own pair. It was immediately obvious that Jerry's pair was of a newer vintage - the leather headband, cabling, and plastic part were all in slightly better, less time-ravaged, shape. Also there was a slight difference to the texture of their metal housings. Jerry's pair had a slightly better finish.

The earpads on Jerry's Stax displayed the same wear pattern as the set that had been on my pair originally- all the pleather (that's what I call fake leather) covering had flaked off, revealing a soft cloth underneath. The original pads without their leather outer coating are noticeably softer than new earpads, so they do compress more when you put them on. The big $49 question (the price of new earpads) is whether there is a difference in sound as a result.

Now if you spend any time perusing the pages of Head-Fi, you'll find plenty of threads about earpad mods. Obviously, with some earphones changing the earpads can make a substantial difference in how they sound. My Grado RS-1s sound much better with new earpads that that I got via Amazon than they did with the originals, which were one step away from getting gooey and weird. But some of the threads where users claim vast differences between leather and cloth earpads on Stax leave me with a feeling of, "yeah, SURE..."

You would think comparing two of the same brand and model earphone would be as simple as turn on a source, plug in earphone A, listen, then plug in earphone B, listen, and make comparisons; but in the real world things are not so simple.

When I began comparing the two Stax SR-X Mark 3s I noticed even when using the same amplifier, a Stax SRM-1/Mk 2, the two headphones had slightly different output levels. My older set of SR-X Mark 3s (with the new earpads) were approximately 1.5 dB more sensitive. Now if I hadn't noticed the difference I might have concluded that the Stax with the new earpads were "better" because they sounded "bigger." Even a 1.5 dB difference can do that.

So before I could do an A/B, I needed to find the right volume settings so that the two headphones had equal output levels. For this I used the 1 kHz tone from the AudioTest App for my Mac and the dB meter in Audio Tools on my iPhone to match levels. Now I was ready for some comparisons.

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The first and as I later discovered, most profound, difference between the two earpad versions was how they felt. The older "cloth" earpads were slightly scratchy on my ears and it took a bit of time to adjust them so that I didn't feel the urge to remove them and scratch the itch that they created. After a bit of adjustment the itchiness subsided. The new Stax earpads felt much better on my ears, but after about fifteen minutes of listening I noticed that my ears got rather warm (overheating?) because the pleather material doesn't breathe, so it traps heat and moisture beneath it. On warm days this could get sticky...

The cloth pads did allow my ears to breathe and after fifteen minutes I didn't have the strong urge to remove and dry off the pads or my ears.

But you're probably more interested in the sonic differences, right? Well, using high-resolution DSD sources (primarily my own recordings) I couldn't discern any sonic differences between the two earphones. To my ears they both sounded great - with wonderfully natural midranges, well-controlled bass, and silky highs. My conclusion, with the Stax SR-X mark 3 headphones the primary reason for replacing the earpads would be comfort, not sound. And for some folks, the older, now cloth earpads may be even be a better option, especially in warm environment, since they allow some moisture to escape from under your ears.

Now, just because a pad change on the Stax SR-X Mark 3s made no sonic difference doesn't mean that ALL earpad swaps are a waste of time and money (if sonic changes are your goal), merely that in this case there were no discernable sonic changes.

The final question is will I order up another pair of SR-X mark 3 earpads to replace the used set on Jerry's pair of earphones? Probably not. It's nice to have a summer and a winter pair of Stax SR-X mark 3 earphones.

So the final question is pretty simple, "Jerry, can a borrow your Stax SR-X mark 3 headphones for a while?"

 

 

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